The expression of cellular adhesion molecules (CAM) involved in cell adhesion and immune recognition was measured on neuroblastoma tissue samples, on a neuroblastoma (NB) cell line, SK-N-SH, and on 3 phenotypically different variants, SH-SY5Y, SH-EP, SH-IN, representing neuronal, Schwannian/glial or intermediate NB-cell types. Immunohistochemical analysis of CAM expression by NB and related tumors at different stages of differentiation revealed a co-expression of several CAM (ICAM-1/CD54, LFA-3, VLA-2 and HLA-ABC) associated with low stages and more highly differentiated NB tumors and peripheral neuroepitheliomas (PN). In contrast, N-CAM was uniformly expressed on all NB tumors. Flow cytometric analysis of CAM surface expression by SK-N-SH and variant cells revealed highly variable phenotypes. Expression of ICAM-1, LFA-3, VLA-2 and HLA-ABC molecules was associated with the epithelial cell type represented by the SH-EP variant. In contrast, low expression of these molecules and high expression of N-CAM was associated with the neuronal SH-SY5Y cells. Exposure of the NB cells to differentiation inducers (retinoic acid, 5'-bromodeoxyuridine and phorbol esters) and cytokines (tau-interferon, alpha-tumor necrosis factor) resulted in a variable up-regulation of the expression of all CAMs, except N-CAM, regardless of the type of differentiation induced. In an attempt to establish a link between the pattern of expression of CAM on NB cells and their susceptibility to natural killer (NK) or lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cell lysis, the analysis revealed that NB cells expressing CAM and a differentiated phenotype were less susceptible to NK lysis, but no difference in the sensitivity of the NB cell types to LAK effectors was observed. Treatment of NB target cells with cytokines or PMA decreased their susceptibility to NK and LAK lysis, while induction of differentiation with RA or BUdR resulted in no changes in the sensitivity to NK and LAK lysis. In conclusion, expression of HLA-ABC and several co-regulated CAMs was shown to be associated with a differentiated phenotype in NB, with an overall decreased sensitivity to NK/LAK effector cells.